It’s not easy learning a new language but newcomers to Regina are getting a lot of help thanks to the growth of the English as an Additional Language (EAL) program.
A student coordinator within the program explained how it has gone from being offered at just one school in the city, to hosting thousands of newcomers while building up Regina’s rich cultural diversity through the decades.
When a wave of immigrants came to Canada from Vietnam in the early 1960’s, Balfour Collegiate became the first Regina Public school to host the EAL program. Shortly after, Thomson Community School was the second and it remained two schools until the program was expanded by the turn of the century with the addition of Martin Collegiate and F. W. Johnson Collegiate.
“We were just getting so many newcomers in, that one school couldn’t host all of those students,” said Linda Mitchell, Student Achievement Coordinator.
By 2013, the EAL program was offered at almost every public elementary and high school in Regina.
At the start of the 2018-19 school year, there were nearly 4,700 students whose first language was not English. That’s grown from 1,560 EAL students in 2012 to now representing about one fifth of the 24,000 students in Regina’s public school system.
The Regina Catholic School Division had 3,585 EAL students at the start of this school year, growing from just 728 in 2010.
Mitchell expressed that one of the greatest improvement’s to the EAL program is the work being done at Regina’s Newcomer Welcome Centre, which opened in 2009.
She worked there as a teacher, helping newcomers and any Canadian that had not been in school before. According to the 2018 Vital Signs report, visitors to the centre from April 1, 2017 to March 31, 2018 came from 98 different countries. Most of them came from five source countries: India (31 per cent), China (14 per cent), Philippines (13 per cent), Nigeria (eight per cent) and Bangladesh (five per cent).
Mitchell said each newcomer at the centre is assessed to provide teachers with a starting point in the students’ English skill level. Some students might be fluent in verbal English but struggling in reading or writing. Prior to 2009, without that assessment, she said it would take a few months in the schools to get a good snapshot of each student.
Mitchell explained how classrooms have become a melting pot of cultures, now with second and third generation students. She said students have become more conscious of the fact that just because others have a different colour of skin or nationality, that doesn’t mean they aren’t Canadian.
“I think the younger generations are more accepting of that than the generations that are older where they might see those differences,” Mitchell said.
From her perspective, each newcomer adds a piece of the world to the classroom. Students are not only learning about the globe on a map, they’re learning from their friends.
In Regina, the most commonly spoken languages other than English and French are Tagalog, Mandarin, Urdu, Punjabi and Arabic. While there are nearly 200 counties on Earth, 118 countries and 121 different languages are represented by newcomers in the public school system.
“Some of those countries, I’d have to say that I don’t know if I really knew about them before,” Mitchell said.
As the immigrant population grows in Saskatchewan, Mitchell admits racism still exists but hopes we can find a way to eliminate it. She said that starts with a better understanding and awareness of everyone’s culture.
“For the most part, I see people in Regina and Saskatchewan very accommodating, very supportive, very helping,” Mitchell said.
When immigrants graduate and get jobs, Mitchell said they end up as doctors, nurses, teachers, engineers, business owners and working in the trades.
“We see those newcomers in all aspects of our society and I think it’s been a wonderful addition to the province to see the diversity and see how we’ve grown.”